A year ago, Juanita Stein released her debut solo album, America, which showcased a vastly different side from her days fronting the underappreciated indie-rock band Howling Bells. Instead of catchy and booming numbers, the record was complex and mystical, as Stein combined an ethereal vocal deliver with hard-hitting and occasionally unnerving stories. In addition, she brought an expected cinema and style to her portfolio. The songs were intended to provoke as much as they were to entertain. She does this once again, but to even grander heights, on Until the Lights Fade.
The album is like a collection of post-modern short stories set in the dusty, arid deserts of the Wild West. At times, the Sydney-born singer-songwriter is the narrator and other times she’s the protagonist. In each case, she delivers engrossing tales that should either be placed in libraries or immortalized on film. In some cases, a handful of songs come to together to form a clever series (or connected sequels), which she achieves with the record’s final three songs.
On “Easy Street”, Stein brilliantly merges dream-pop with gritty country-rock of the ’70s. A feeling of racing through the ghost towns of the southwest United States is created, where the only shadows to be seen are those of the cacti that dot the landscape and the solitary being that treks across it. He is a wanderer that “is on the run again” trying to shed “no teary goodbyes”, and he’s constantly looking for “the easy way out” from a relationship or a series of one-night stands. An element of Tarantino mystique radiates across this rollicking yet lush track.
One woman, however, won’t allow him to escape so easily, and the gritty, psychedelic-folk number, “Fast Lane”, is her story. She first reflects on his reckless ways, but she then claims he “can call my name and I’ll be there for you, honey”. The LP’s closer, “French Film”, shines the spotlight back on the unfaithful wanderer. This time, Stein is his conscience. She wistfully tells him through the spooky, melancholic atmosphere that he truly loves her. That she is the only one who knows her, and her effects are “lost inside your mind”.
At the center of Stein’s cinematic world, however, is “Forgiver”. Co-written with The Killers’ Brandon Flowers, the song commences with a high-energy, spaghetti-western vibe and introduces us to a merciless fool and a seductive woman who “is a caged bird in a sanctuary”. For 3.5 minutes, Stein follows their exploits, which ends up in heartbreak and countless days shedding tears at the bar for the naïve man.
Stein turns to groovy and shimmering doo-wop on the enticing “In Your Hands”. It is the one track on the album that sounds like a weak-in-the-knees love song. Through her lustful croon, Stein admits there is one person who knows everything about her, and she has done this willfully. Yet on the slow-building “Cool”, she tells herself to not show all her cards right away and to stay strong. It’s a reminder to not lose oneself in the heat of the moment or within the arms of another.
The strength of people, particularly women, is at the heart of Until the Lights Fade. On the sizzling psych-folk rocker, “Get Back to the City”, Stein details the experience of strong, smart, and worldly women that she knows. They have fallen for “assholes” because “they need a love so bad it hurts”. But instead of focusing on her struggles, Stein encourages her friend to be courageous and return to the people and places that gave her strength. As she states:
“You’ve got to get back to the city,
You know you’ve got to get back to yourself.”
The album’s gentile opener, “All The Way”, however, best personifies the theme of inner strength. A haunting, solemn hue covers this song’s skies, creating a melancholic atmosphere. Stein’s soft and delicate vocals, though, provide some brightness to this story about her late grandmother’s life in then Czechoslovakia prior to and during World War II. How she survived is told in Stein’s words, where fate, love, and determination drove her to find her freedom.
Whether through grandiose, cinematic tales or the harrowing real-life stories of those she loves, Until the Light Fades excels because of how Stein depicts humanity and the spirit and strengthen within. Life is not merely just a series of soundbites and shallow emotions, but it is the collection of our entire experiences. These experiences shape us and, in turn, yields an art form – an album – that possesses a magnetic center that resonates with and exists within all of us.
Until the Lights Fade is out now on Nude, and it’s out on the usual streaming and purchasing sites.
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